Wellbeing for GPs: How self-compassion can help us tackle stress and anxiety

Good levels of self-esteem and self-compassion lead to less anxiety and depression. Dr Jennifer Napier explains why this is the case and how GPs can develop self-compassion.

Dr Jennifer Napier
Dr Jennifer Napier

‘Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, and you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals.  This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us.’ – Dr. Kristin Neff

What is compassion?

The literal meaning of the word compassion is ‘to suffer together’. 

Whilst empathy refers to our ability to share the perspective and feelings of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to enhance the welfare of someone who suffers or is in need.

What is self-compassion?

‘This kind of compulsive concern with "I, me, and mine" isn’t the same as loving ourselves…loving ourselves points us to capacities of resilience, compassion, and understanding within that are simply part of being alive.’ – Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness.

Kristin Neff, a researcher on self-compassion, writes that in our competitive and critical society we can try to inflate our egos and bolster self-esteem through favourable comparison with others. 

However, this approach involves a zero-sum game, and is prone to ‘crashes’ as we simply cannot be wonderful on all self-measures all of the time. The tricks we use to help see ourselves positively can mean we become self-absorbed, swinging from highs to the lows of feeling worthless.

Research suggests the answer is to stop criticising and evaluating ourselves as ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘better’, and just accept ourselves. Self-compassion means befriending ourselves, and entails three core components:

  • Self-kindness – that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves, rather than harshly critical.
  • Recognition of our common humanity – feeling connected with others in the experience of life, rather than isolated by our suffering.
  • Mindfulness – that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring or exaggerating our pain.

Self-compassion is not wallowing self-pity. It is about taking a warm and kind stance towards ourselves, emphasising our connectedness with the broader perspective of human experience.

Neither is it self-indulgence as it is not about avoiding difficult feelings or thoughts. Self-compassion can help us understand areas in which we wish to grow and develop, helping us create an environment in which we are most able to do so.1

How does this help us?

Taking a kind approach to ourselves is the foundation for being kind and compassionate to others. Compassion strengthens friendships, partnerships and society.2

It is the intelligent kindness that Ballatt and Campling so eloquently propose is needed to undergird cultural change in healthcare.3

Research shows that self-compassion and self-esteem tend to grow together. Good levels of self-esteem and self-compassion both lead to less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness and optimism. 

However self-compassion offers advantages over self-esteem when we are having a hard time, or see something about ourselves we do not like. Instead of putting energy into defending a fragile ego, self-compassionate people are more receptive to reflecting, learning and developing.

When we feel compassion our heart rate slows down through vagal activation of the parasympathetic system, and we secrete oxytocin. Regions of our brain linked to empathy, caregiving and feelings of pleasure become activated. Being compassionate can help dampen the stress response and strengthen immunity.2

How might we practise it?

Compassion is not an in-built capacity, but something we can develop. Dr Neff offers various exercises and practices for developing self-compassion on her website. And there are various compassion and self-compassion meditations and exercises here

  • Dr Jennifer Napier is a GP with special interest in occupational medicine. She has researched wellbeing and workforce issues, and works through Contextualyse to train and consult on how to create healthy, productive workplaces.

References

  1. https://physicianburnout.co.uk/2016/09/29/how-can-self-compassion-support-our-learning-and-development/
  2. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition
  3. Ballatt, J. & Campling, P. Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare. London: 2011 RCPysh.

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